‘It’s a role of service:’ Joshua Harris on being senior pastor of Covenant Life Church

Communications Staff — August 21, 2009

Here is the feature story on Joshua Harris as it appeared on the cover of the most recent issue of Towers. You can also read a three-part Q&A with Harris on pastoral ministry and his relationship with C.J. Mahaney. Here are parts 1, 2 and 3 of the interview.

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You’ve graduated from Southern Seminary.

Gone are late nights parsing Greek verbs for Tom Schreiner, reviewing notes from Tom Nettles’ church history class and trying to figure out how you can write sermon titles, let alone preach sermons, like Russell D. Moore. All of that is in the past.

The congregation of First Baptist Church of Lebanon, Mo., has just called you as its new senior pastor. Like a thoroughbred in the gate seconds before the race, you are ready to run.

So what should you be thinking?

Joshua Harris, senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., said such first time ministers need to begin at what seems an unlikely place: with the end in mind.

“Think about things in terms of the long haul, have a long term perspective,” Harris said. “You can shoot out of the blocks trying to accomplish everything and have a youthful zeal that is really more about making a name for yourself or making fireworks in some way to make everybody feel like something really great is happening.

“But if you really see it as you laying a foundation and building something for the long term, I think that perspective is going to influence how you teach and how you invest yourself in the people of the church.”

Harris, who is 34 and serving in his first pastorate himself, said young ministers also need to be ready to learn from those who are older and more experienced.

“I also think it is so important to have mentors in your life, people that you are talking to and getting help from, an older pastor who you can ask questions of,” he said. “There are just so many things that other guys have walked through that you can learn from. If you don’t have to make all the mistakes and learn the lesson again, it would save you a lot of hassle.

“So just the humility of saying (to older pastors), ‘here are the questions I am asking and the challenges I am facing’ and those older pastors will just have so much life experience and be able to help you.”

While Harris’ first senior pastorate is not your average one — Covenant Life has more than 3,000 members — there are still several valuable lessons for young pastors and pastors-to-be to learn from his life and ministry.

Learning from C.J. Mahaney

Harris — author of several books, including “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (Multnomah: 1997) and “Stop Dating the Church!” (Multnomah: 2004) — began serving as senior pastor of Covenant Life in 2004. He came to the church in 1997 to serve as pastoral intern under C.J. Mahaney, president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, who was then senior pastor of Covenant Life.

Harris had previously spoken at Covenant Life — he spoke at his father’s conferences on homeschooling — and in conversation with Mahaney, he exhorted Harris to look for someone to mentor him.

After thought and prayer Harris asked Mahaney to fill the role.

“I just saw so many qualities that I wanted to have in my own life in C.J.,” Harris said. “Seeing him live his theology made me want the theology. It is just words on paper until you see somebody in the good (situation) of (living out) a real knowledge of God, a real grasp of the Gospel.”

Harris said his request came at a time in Mahaney’s life when God had been convicting him about the importance of training the next generation.

“It was just one of those moments where God’s providence is so evident that he (Mahaney) was willing to let me come out and be a part of the church,” Harris said. “I ended up living in his basement for a year, learning from his family and beginning to be trained in ministry.”

During the internship, Harris started and organized the annual “New Attitude” conference (now called “NEXT”), a conference of teaching and worship aimed at young adults. Harris said Mahaney also gave him preaching opportunities, where he would critique and encourage him, and read and discussed several books with him.

“The mentoring continues,” Harris said. “He still gives me feedback on how I lead and tells where he thinks I am getting it wrong and right, and I benefit from that relationship.”

Learning to lead

Realizing that he will give an account to God for his flock, Harris undertakes his role as pastor with great earnestness.

“The senior pastor is ultimately responsible, even for other people’s decisions: you are the one who is called to take responsibility,” he said. “There is definitely a weight of needing to faithfully preach, but then also carry a lot of leadership responsibilities.

“And that is not a one time deal. You have to day in, day out, week after week, year after year keep preaching the Word of God, keep proclaiming the Gospel and it is just a long race.”

Harris recognizes his situation is uncommon: he stepped into his first senior pastorate in a large church. On his first Sunday, Harris preached from Joshua 24, a passage that reminds the Israelites that they are living in cities they did not build and harvesting crops they did not plant.

“I preached from that because that is how I felt,” he said.

Harris said God has used his situation to impress upon him the overriding importance of faithfulness in his position.

“(I am) very aware of the fact that the church and, even more essentially, the Gospel is a stewardship, it is something that is entrusted to us,” he said. “My experience has really laid that weight on my shoulders more.

“I really have felt the sense of something being handed to me and the sense of ‘I need to be faithful to guard what has been entrusted to me and deliver that to the next generation.’ It is not about ‘Hey, I need to come and innovate’ and ‘Hey, what mark can I make on this?’ and that sort of thing. Of course there is a place for innovation, but in the confines of saying ‘This Gospel is unchanging; this is truth that I need to preserve and pass on to other men.'”

Teaching the value of church membership

In “Stop Dating the Church,” Harris challenges people to commit and stay committed to a local church. In the interview with Towers, Harris noted that when people are not committed to their local church they are “first and foremost disobeying God, then cheating themselves — because they are not receiving the care, love and encouragement that flows through the church — then cheating others.”

In a talk at the Gospel Coalition conference in April, Harris recounted the story of a woman who wanted to have “herself, Jesus and a mountain stream” at her baptism. Another person he talked to said they were going to Israel to be baptized in the Jordan River. Harris said such approaches to baptism reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of the local church in one’s life.

“Okay, I understand wanting to be baptized in the Jordan River: that is cool, that is a pretty neat thing,” he said. “But I would love for people to be in a place to say, ‘You know what, unless my church is there, I want to be baptized in the fake tank (in my church) because baptism is not just about me, it is about us.

“This is about what God is doing in us. God used the people in this church to save me and I want, because I am called to this community, I want unbelievers there, I want them to hear me testify to what Jesus has done.”

Harris lists several biblical reasons for leaving a church, including moral failing or doctrinal infidelity allowed or upheld by the church leadership, but says apart from such situations, people should stick with the body. Harris said it can be valid to switch churches because of a difference in ministry vision or theological emphasis, but warned that they are many dangers in such situations.

“It would be important first of all to evaluate the pattern of your own life,” he said. “If you say, ‘I’m thinking I should do this’ ask, ‘Have I ever done this before?’ If you say, ‘Oh, yeah: eight times in the past two years,’ then you might need to stop and say, ‘Do you realize there is a pattern here, that you are always seeing something better?’

“Another question I would ask is have you humbly communicated some of (your concerns or reasons for leaving) to the church leaders? That is hard to do. It is easier to criticize than it is to say, ‘I respect you, I love this church, but I want to share ways in which I think that we could grow. And I want to be open to evaluation. Maybe I am not seeing something clearly.’ You want to leave in a way that preserves the unity of that local church and doesn’t create any ill will.

“So just really ask some tough questions and make sure you are leaving for the right reasons.”

Harris said he is tremendously honored to serve as pastor of Covenant Life.

“I still just wake up and think, ‘I can’t believe I am serving in this way,'” he said. “I get to serve with a team of men who I so respect; they are my dear friends. It’s a role of service and I am not going to have it forever. Lord willing, I will be able to pass it on faithfully to someone else.”

Harris is also the author of “Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship” and “Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is): Sexual Purity in a Lust-Saturated World.” His newest book, “Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why it Matters?” is due in January 2010.

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